11 december 2013, 11/12/13

Apart from it being an odd date day, today must be the first one in a while that has seen hundreds of thousands of people on the street protesting in favour of the european union. Whilst on western shores the european tide seems to be ebbing ever further away from the demos, to the east it retains a powerful pull. Earlier this year, (1 july 2013, and now we're 28) croatia celebrated becoming the 28th member state of the union and in 3 weeks latvia will become the eurozone's 18th member. This will delight coin collectors, with a whole new set euro set, but leave governance-hawks still waiting for the ecb governing council's rotation scheme to finally kick in. On the streets of kiev, the cries are for a european perspective. Strengthening ukraine's link to brussels has now become the defining political issue on which the government, at an election or before, will be chosen. Catherine ashton, the eu's challenged foreign minister/high-representative, is a hero of the crowd, fresh from being a significant influence in egypt and iran, where the much-discussed "g3", with ashton representing the various eu countries, made a significant appearance. Don't abandon yet the notion it will one day be time for europe.

9 december 2013, everyone's a winner

The derivation of policy from short-term political imperative has a long and (ig)noble history, but there does seem to be a bit of an english wave at the moment, from benefits cuts achieving no savings, to free school dinners for those of a certain age, to energy bill cuts (or freezes). Proving all those training courses wrong, there will shortly be such thing as a free lunch, providing you are under 7, but not if you are 8 and your parent(s) can't afford it. In a similar vein, the strong incentive that rising fuel bills gives to people to radically reduce their energy use, through technology and culture change, has created two big problems. One is fuel poverty, for those who can't afford to heat their homes, the second large profits for big energy companies. Policies to address this might include a targeted subsidy for the former, and windfall taxes for the latter. Instead, £50 will simply be wiped off everyone's bill, paid for by all taxpayers, regardless of energy use. This seems designed, as does the opposition's rather wobbly price freeze, to make everyone a winner (including those 5-7 year olds' mondeo mums). However, an important side-effect is undermining the incentive framework behind reducing energy usage, just as it begins to bite. Harder to crack is the country's ever-rising benefits bill, but here's one left-field idea that just, might (go on) be worth consideration. Forget universal credit, think universal income. The swiss are soon to vote on giving every adult about £1,700 a month. Crazy ? By giving absolutely everyone the minimum needed to live (deemed in the uk about £5,000 a year), this would at once remove the whole need for most of a complex benefits system and bureacracy whose latest venture (and there are many) wasted £140m on a failed IT project. Given the uk's working age population, this would cost some £200bn - not a billion miles from the current benefit budget of £135bn, of which around 5% is bureaucracy. Once you're paid anyway, all the incentives are to work, at whatever level, to increase your income. OK, there are a very many unknowns and approximations to work through, but this might just be one radical policy prescription that hits the precious political expedient of making everyone a winner.

21 november 2013, a poor prescription

Some systems are so complex no-one understands and therefore questions them (credit default swaps spring to mind). Add sacred cow status and that makes the british prescription system practically untouchable. However, as was suggested to me today by someone with vastly more knowledge, the system seems patently ridiculous. Prescriptions are the chits given by doctors to patients to get medicine and are now the second highest area of UK health spending (after staff). More than a staggering 1, 000 million prescriptions were given in 2012 just in the community sector, at a cost of some £8.5bn, and that was far less than hospitals (£13.3bn). Though nominally they cost just under £8 in england, around 90% of prescriptions are free, mainly because they go to the over 60s, who are exempt along with a slug of, relatively random, ailments. In scotland, wales and northern ireland, they are free for everyone, saving what one suspects are the rather substantial costs of administering a complex and bureaucratic system. The last report into this, by derek wanless, found the system illogical, and the venerable british medical association calls for a fundamental review, describing the system as outdated and iniquitous. It is hard to disagree.

9 november 2013, of populism

Policies are not always, or even usually, popular. Most are either unknown to or not really understood by most of the population. Successful politicians can explain and justify enough of what they are doing in terms of individual actions. The underpinning intellectual framework is rarely part of the immediate rational. This may seem, and indeed is, a rather elitist point of view. It is also a truism and a reason that politics across the western world seems to be coming so unstuck, as the waves of apathy that built up (or perhaps better ebbed away) in the better times turn now into waves of anger and anti-elitism with times more challenging. Although this political disconnect is most talked about in the european context, both as the "democratic deficit" in eu politics and the rise of anti-establishment parties across the continent (26 march 2011, let's ignore the rise of the right), it is most developed in the us, where a generation of populists with no need to heed sense have risen due to institutionalised gerrymandering that ensures pandering to extremes. It is also increasingly apparent in the uk, where the main opposition, labour, seems to be developing policies designed less with efficacy and outcomes in mind and more with passing popularity tests, which is not necessarily a bad strategy for winning elections, though not necessarily a winning one either. As in so many things, britain is out of kilter with most of the continent, in that there this populism is anchored on the right, railing against a broadly statist equilibrium (which can be stretched to angela merkel and the epp), whereas here the head of steam is building from the left with the right defending the establishment ramparts. Whether populism's rise succeeds in its revolution, on either side of the channel, depends more than anything on experienced economic recovery, as it is not religion but prosperity that is now the opium of the people. If there is enough of it around, the walls will probably remain intact, and despite pretenders to the contrary, there is little real sign of a joshua around, which if you read the actual story, is probably a good thing.

1 november 2013, elegance as the enemy of efficiency

Meaning that pragmatism in governance structures (like much else) is often messy. Though no doubt she heard it from someone else, I have to credit this nice turn of phrase to alex jones, who manfully chaired an excellent session today with the major thought-leader that is bruce katz. You can download the excellent app here that will tell his story much better than I can, or see his presentation here. The basic idea of the metropolitan revolution is that the era of the all-conquering nation state is receding and if anything is to get done in the world then cities need to step up. He gives some excellent examples of how american cities are doing just that, and his urging on to the rest of us is borderline inspirational. Its not just strong narrative and slick presentation, but the premise is utterly compelling, and the more you think about it, the more right it seems and the more ideas you start having about its application. I'm off to read the book.

18 october 2013, an odd alliance

It's not often I'm tempted to agree with the saudi government - it's up there with the one occasion in my life I think I agreed with berlusconi (4 february 2010, silvio and me), but here goes. I can only applaud their extraordinary stand of turning down their seat on the security council. Granted it's a buggin's turn seat, but still it's their first time ever and in diplomatic united nations parlance, it's like a nuclear bomb. Granted too it could be said to be a somewhat hypocritical stance given their own record at moments in their history and their pique mainly comes from their side in the whole fight losing to their arch rivals (iran). However, sit back and enjoy the show, or rather grimace at their critique of the security council's utter powerlessness: "allowing the ruling regime in syria to kill its people and burn them with chemical weapons in front of the entire world and without any deterrent or punishment is clear proof and evidence of the un security council's inability to perform its duties and shoulder its responsibilities." Despite the fact that as most commentators immediately saw it probably is indeed all about iran, I can't help but cast an admiring glance riyadh's way at this ineffectual but crusading gesture worthy of amnesty international.

12 october 2013, of masks and mopeds

I've been back over a week since my first ever few days in asia, but can recall some impressions of a brisk, tiring but highly stimulating trip. I was on a small mission to sell sustainable city services, which was very well endowed with ukti people, and then architects and designers, like fosters, trying to sell things like passivhaus regulation, and, rather less likely, personal trains. I was the only city and felt a bit like the star turn, speaking after the minister and getting sat next to his deputy at a formal dinner. We may yet even get some business from it. Meanwhile taipei was a whirlwind and my very brief impressions were of lots of tall buildings and small people, many in masks and on mopeds, which are stacked at traffic lights waiting to go. It was quite futuristic and has seen impressive and managed growth these last decades, including an extensive subway system not yet a decade old. We also spent a day on kinmen island, which is snug alongside the chinese mainland coast, has a potent liquor and is some way through a transformative economic programme designed to attract millions of chinese day trippers, in which it may yet succeed and so play a role in the bigger economic integration era that taiwan and the mainland are currently going through. A worthwhile use of a few days.

28 september 2013, going east

Later today I am off to taiwan, which is a first trip to asia if you don't count kyrgystan and kazakstan. I'm not sure what my copy of the path of the communist party of china that I picked up earlier this week at a reception at the consul-general's would say about taiwan, but I read from their own site that it still styles itself the republic of china, and I am humble enough to say that despite being a relatively serious student of history over many years, I have never quite got to that part of the world or that conflict, so I don't really know how things have come to pass there. No doubt I'll get at least one side of the story. I am going to boost manchester (of course) on the ukti eco-cities mission, us being one. The bit of britain that's great in this context, apparently, is green. I need to sing for my supper, but have a deep well to draw on, and should gain from the people we meet and the things we'll see and do. That's the (great) idea anyway.

21 september 2013, europe is not (too) right

Hungary's youth, it seems, are even more inclined than their parents to support the extreme right jobbik party, with 29% approving, against 40% for the (quite) right of centre fidesz. In the real-life elections (12 april 2010) they got 16%, which they may yet improve on next year, and which already has the jewish world in such a spin that the annual world jewish congress decamped to budapest to protest against the party. Unfortunately, the rise of the far right (26 march 2011) in hungary is far from an isolated incident, and astounding results, like the french national front getting 46% of a second-round vote, just keep on coming. In that same poll of hungarian youth, many more thought the country joining the eu to be more disadvantageous than a plus, which is a consistent driver of people across the continent towards a group of parties outside mainstream acceptance of europe, though few these days elicit enthusiasm. Other significant factors are an increasing hard anti-establishment mood, with politicians everywhere taking the rap for economic underperformance and seen as not representing the increasing numbers of radical hopeless and dispossessed, and anti- immigration feeling, usually islamic. Prolonged recession continues to press ever-heavier weights of inequality on the eu edifice of open borders and labour market freedoms. As it is the best hope of europe surviving and thriving in this globalised world, work is needed to support that edifice, including through reforming it to be better able to bear those weights that are likely to be with us for some time. Opportunists such as jobbik will always thrive in such times, as they did in the 1930s, but economic prosperity and stability can drive them back.

15 september 2013, been a while

A fortnight on, and I am still shaking the branches of my family tree, with ripe and interesting fruits falling out left, right and centre. There are family schisms over raincoat factories, penniless litvaks turning up in dundee thinking they're in "amerika", great uncles getting shot down in the battle of britain, rather too many kids disappearing between birth and adulthood, a dramatic deathbed scene, and offshoots springing up in america, south africa and australia, as well as much dead wood I know I'll never find in the old world of der heim. A common thread is the amazing march across the generations, uncannily similar in the endless different branches I am delving into, of poverty-stricken immigrants seeing their children embed themselves in their adopted homelands, and the next generation succeed to parent the pillars of the community that form the often-accurate stereotype of today. So much of my own history is in manchester, and I'm working on a map with a pin (electronic of course) of everywhere we've laid our hats, and will one day make a tour, at least of the properties still standing, which I don't think are many. And my kids are now being sucked in too, as we start to set it all out on a big wall in my study, with photgraphs where we have them. I think that some thirty years after I gave up stamps, I may have myself a hobby !

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